The Deer Hunter Film Notes
The Deer Hunter
Directed by Michael Cimino
Screenplay by Deric Washburn
Quinn K. Redeker
Robert De Niro
See Full Cast
Music by Stanley Myers
Cinematography Vilmos Zsigmond
Editing by Peter Zinner
Studio EMI Films
Universal Pictures (US)
EMI Films (Worldwide Sales)
Release date(s) December 8, 1978
Running time 183 minutes[a 1]
Country US, UK
Budget $15 million
Box office $48,979,328 (Domestic)
The Deer Hunter is a 1978 drama film
directed and co-written by Michael Cimino
about a trio of Russian American steel
worker friends and their infantry service in
the Vietnam War. The film stars Robert De
Niro, Christopher Walken, John Savage,
John Cazale, Meryl Streep and George
Dzundza. The story takes place in Clairton, a
small working class town on the
Monongahela River south of Pittsburgh and
then in Vietnam, somewhere in the woodland
and in Saigon, during the Vietnam War.
The film was based in part on a screenplay
called "The Man Who Came To Play" by
Louis Garfinkle and Quinn K. Redeker about
Las Vegas and Russian Roulette. Producer
Michael Deeley, who bought the script, hired
writer/director Michael Cimino who, with
Deric Washburn, rewrote the script, taking
the Russian Roulette element and placing it
in the Vietnam War. The film went over-
budget and over-schedule and ended up
costing $15 million.
The scenes of Russian roulette were highly
controversial on release. The film won five
Academy Awards, including Best Picture and
Best Director and was named by the
American Film Institute as the 53rd Greatest
Movie of All Time on the 10th Anniversary
Edition of the AFI's 100 Years…100 Movies
Critics and film historians have often noted how the film is divided into three equal thirds or acts.
Likewise the plot synopsis is also divided into three acts, spanning the years of 1968-1975.[a 2]
Act I - In Clairton, a small working class town in western Pennsylvania, in late 1968, Russian
American steel workers Michael (De Niro), Steven (Savage), and Nick (Walken), with the
support of their friends Stanley (Cazale), John (Dzundza) and Axel (Chuck Aspegren, his only
movie role; he was a steel worker from Gary, Indiana), prepare for two rites of passage: marriage
and military service. The opening scenes set the character traits of the three main characters.
Michael is the no-nonsense, serious but unassuming leader, Steven the loving, near-groom,
pecked at by his mother for not wearing a scarf with his tuxedo and Nick is the quiet,
introspective man who loves hunting because, "I like the trees...you know...the way the trees
are..." The recurring theme of "one shot", which is how Michael prefers to take down a deer, is
introduced. Before the trio ships out, Steven and his girlfriend Angela (who is pregnant by
another man but loved by Steven nonetheless) marry in an Orthodox wedding. In the meantime,
Michael contains his feelings for Nick's girlfriend Linda (Streep). At the wedding reception held
at the local VFW bar, the guys get drunk, dance, sing and have a good time, but then notice a
soldier in a US Army's Special Forces uniform. Michael buys him a drink and tries to start a
conversation with him to find out what Vietnam is like, but he ignores Michael. After Michael
explains that he, Steven and Nick are going to Vietnam, the Green Beret raises his glass and says
"fuck it" to everyone's shock and amazement. Obviously disturbed and under mental anguish, the
soldier again toasts them with "fuck it". After being restrained by the others from starting a fight,
Michael goes back to the bar and in a mocking jest to the soldier, raises his glass and toasts him
with "fuck it". The soldier then glances over at Michael and grins smugly. Later, during the
Russian Orthodox traditional wedding toast to Steven and Angela, which is believed to be good
luck for a couple who drink from conjoined goblets without spilling a drop, a drop of blood-red
wine unknowingly spills on her wedding gown, foreshadowing the coming events. Near the end
of the reception, Nick asks Linda to marry him, and she agrees. Later that night, after a drunk
and naked Michael runs through the streets of town, Nick chases him down and begs Michael not
to leave him "over there" if anything happens. The next day, Michael and the remaining friends
go deer hunting one last time, and Michael again scores a deer with "one shot".
Act II - The film then jumps abruptly to a war-torn village, where U.S. helicopters attack a
communist occupied Vietnamese village with napalm. A North Vietnamese soldier throws a
stick grenade into a hiding place full of civilians. An unconscious Mike (now a staff sergeant in
the Army Special Forces) wakes up to see the NVA soldier shoot a woman carrying a baby. In
revenge Mike kills him. Meanwhile a unit of UH-1 "Huey" helicopters drops off several US
infantrymen, Nick and Steven among them. Michael, Steven, and Nick unexpectedly find each
other just before they are captured and held together in a riverside prisoner of war camp with
other US Army and ARVN prisoners. For entertainment, the sadistic guards force their prisoners
to play Russian roulette and gamble on the outcome. All three friends are forced to play. Steven
aims the gun above his head, grazing himself with the bullet, and is punished by incarceration to
an underwater cage, full of rats and the bodies of others who earlier faced the same fate. Michael
and Nick end up playing against each other, and Michael convinces the guards to let them play
with three bullets in the gun. After a tense match, they kill their captors and escape. Mike had
earlier argued with Nick about whether Steven could be saved, but after killing their captors he
rescues Steven. The three float downriver on a tree branch. An American helicopter accidentally
finds them, but only Nick is able to climb aboard. The weakened Steven falls back into water and
Mike plunges in the water to rescue him. Unluckily, Steven breaks both legs in the fall. Mike
helps him to reach the river bank, and then carries him through the jungle to friendly lines.
Approaching a caravan of locals escaping the war zone, he stops a South Vietnamese military
truck and places the wounded Steven on it, asking the soldiers to take care of him. Nick, who is
psychologically damaged apparently suffering amnesia, recuperates in a military hospital in
Saigon with no knowledge on the status of his friends. At night, he aimlessly stumbles through
the red-light district. At one point, he encounters Julien Grinda (Pierre Segui), a champagne-
drinking friendly Frenchman outside a gambling den where men play Russian roulette for
money. Grinda entices the reluctant Nick to participate, and leads him into the den. Mike is
present in the den, watching the game, but the two friends do not notice each other at first. When
Mike does see Nick, he is unable to get his attention. When Nick is introduced into the game he
instead grabs the gun, fires it at the current contestant and then again at his own temple, causing
the audience to riot in protest. Grinda hustles Nick outside to his car to escape the angry mob.
Mike cannot catch up with Nick and Grinda as they speed away.
Act III - Back in the U.S., Mike returns home but maintains a low profile. He tells the cab driver
to pass by the house where all his friends are assembled, as he is embarrassed by the fuss made
over him by Linda and the others. Mike goes to a hotel and struggles with his feelings, as he
thinks both Nick and Steven are dead or missing. He eventually visits Linda and grows close to
her, but only because of the friend they both think they have lost. Mike is eventually told about
Angela, whom he goes to visit at the home of Steven's mother. She is lethargic and barely
responsive. She writes a phone number on a scrap of paper, which leads Mike to the local
veterans' hospital where Steven has been for several months. Mike goes hunting with Axel, John
and Stanley one more time, and after tracking a beautiful deer across the woods, takes his "one
shot" but pulls the rifle up and fires into the air, unable to take another life. He then sits on a rock
escarpment and yells out, "OK?", which echoes back at him from the opposing rock faces
leading down to the river, signifying his fight with his mental demons over losing Steven and
Nick. He also berates Stanley for carrying around a small revolver and waving it around, not
realizing it is still loaded. He knows the horror of war and wants no part of it anymore. Steven
has lost both his legs and is partially paralyzed. Mike visits Steven, who reveals that someone in
Saigon has been mailing large amounts of cash to him, and Mike is convinced that it is Nick.
Mike brings Steven home to Angela and then travels to Saigon just before its fall in 1975. He
tracks down the Frenchman Grinda, who has made a lot of money from the Russian-roulette-
playing American. He finds Nick in a crowded roulette club, but Nick appears to have no
recollection of his friends or his home in Pennsylvania. Mike sees the needle tracks on his arm, a
sign of drug abuse. He realizes that Nick thinks he (Michael) and Steven are dead, since he is the
only one who made it back on the helicopter. Mike enters himself in a game of Russian roulette
against Nick, hoping to jar Nick's memory and persuade him to come home, but Nick's mind is
gone. In the last moment, after Mike's attempts to remind him of their trips hunting together, he
finally breaks through, and Nick recognizes Mike and smiles. Nick then tells Mike, "one shot",
raises the gun to his temple, and pulls the trigger. The bullet is in the gun's top chamber, and
Nick kills himself. Horrified, Michael tries to revive him, but to no avail.
Epilogue - Back home in 1974, there is a funeral for Nick, whom Michael brings home, good to
his promise. The film ends with the whole cast at their friend's bar, singing "God Bless America"
and toasting in Nick's honor.
There has been considerable debate, controversy, and conflicting stories about how The Deer
Hunter was initially developed and written. Director and co-writer Michael Cimino, writer
Deric Washburn, producers Barry Spikings and Michael Deeley all have different versions of
how the film came to be.
In 1968, the record company EMI formed a new company called EMI Films, headed by
producers Barry Spikings and Michael Deeley. Deeley purchased the first draft of a spec script
called "The Man Who Came To Play", written by Louis Garfinkle and Quinn K. Redeker, for
$19,000. The spec script was about people who go to Las Vegas to play Russian Roulette.
"The screenplay had struck me as brilliant," wrote Deeley, "but it wasn't complete. The trick
would be to find a way to turn a very clever piece of writing into a practical, realizable film."
When the movie was being planned during the mid-1970s, Vietnam was still a taboo subject with
all major Hollywood studios. According to producer Michael Deeley, the standard response
was "no American would want to see a picture about Vietnam".
After consulting various Hollywood agents, Deeley found writer-director Michael Cimino,
represented by Stan Kamen at the William Morris Agency. Deeley was impressed by Cimino's
TV commercial work and Thunderbolt and Lightfoot. Cimino himself was confident that he
could further develop the principal characters of The Man Who Came To Play without losing the
essence of the original. After Cimino was hired, he was called into a meeting with Garfinkle and
Redeker at the EMI office. According to Deeley, Cimino questioned the need for the Russian
roulette element of the script and Redeker made such a passionate case for it that he ended up
literally on his knees. Over the course further meetings, Cimino and Deeley discussed the work
needed at the front of the script and Cimino believed he could develop the stories of the main
characters in twenty minutes of film.
Cimino worked for six weeks with Deric Washburn on the script. Cimino and Washburn had
previously collaborated with Stephen Bochco on the screenplay for Silent Running. According to
producer Spikings, Cimino said he wanted to work again with Washburn. According to
producer Deeley, he only heard from office rumor that Washburn was contracted by Cimino to
work on the script. "Whether Cimino hired Washburn as his sub-contractor or as a co-writer was
constantly being obfuscated," wrote Deeley, "and there were some harsh words between them
later on, or so I was told." There are still questions, as to whether Washburn/Cimino's script
was entirely fiction.
According to Cimino, he would call Washburn while on the road scouting for locations and feed
him notes on dialogue and story. Upon reviewing Washburn's draft, Cimino said, "I came back,
and read it and I just could not believe what I read. It was like it was written by some body who
was... mentally deranged." Cimino confronted Washburn at the Sunset Marquis in LA about the
draft and Washburn supposedly replied that he couldn't take the pressure and had to go home.
Cimino then fired Washburn. Cimino would later claim to have written the entire screenplay
himself. Washburn's response to Cimino's comments were, "“It’s all nonsense. It’s lies. I didn’t
have a single drink the entire time I was working on the script.”
According to Washburn, he and Cimino spent three days together in L.A. at the Sunset Marquis,
hammering out the plot. The script eventually went through several drafts, evolving into a story
with three distinct acts. Washburn didn’t interview any vets to write The Deer Hunter and didn’t
do any research. “I had a month, that was it,” he explains. “The clock was ticking. Write the
fucking script! But all I had to do was watch TV. Those combat cameramen in Vietnam were out
there in the field with the guys. I mean, they had stuff that you wouldn’t dream of seeing about
Iraq.” When Washburn was finished, he says, Cimino and Joann Carelli, an associate producer
on The Deer Hunter who would go on to produce two more of Cimino’s films, took him to
dinner at a cheap restaurant off the Sunset Strip. He recalls, “We finished, and Joann looks at me
across the table, and she says, ‘Well, Deric, it’s fuck-off time.’ I was fired. It was a classic case:
you get a dummy, get him to write the goddamn thing, tell him to go fuck himself, put your name
on the thing, and he’ll go away. I was so tired, I didn’t care. I’d been working 20 hours a day for
a month. I got on the plane the next day, and I went back to Manhattan and my carpenter job.”
Deeley's reaction to the revised script
Deeley felt the revised script, now called The Deer Hunter, broke fresh ground for the project.
The protagonist in the Redeker/Garfinkle script, Merle, was an individual who sustained a bad
injury in active service and had been damaged psychologically by his violent experiences, but
was nevertheless a tough character with strong nerves and guts. Cimino and Washburn's revised
script distilled the three aspects of Merle's personality and separated them out into three distinct
characters. They became three old friends who had grown up in the same small industrial town
and worked in the same steel mill, and in due course would be drafted together to Vietnam. In
the original script, the roles of Merle (later renamed Mike) and Nick were reversed in the last
half of the film. Nick returns home to Linda, while Mike remains in Vietnam, sends money home
to help Steven, and meets his tragic fate at the Russian roulette table.
A Writers Guild arbitration process awarded Washburn sole "Screenplay By" credit. Garfinkle
and Redeker were given a shared "Story By" credit with Cimino and Washburn. Deeley felt the
story credits for Garfinkle and Redeker "did them less than justice." Cimino contested the
results of the arbitration. ""In their Nazi wisdom," added Cimino, "[they] didn't give me the
credit because I would be producer, director and writer." All four writers, Cimino, Washburn,
Garfinkle and Redeker received an Oscar nomination for Best Original Screenplay for this
While producer Deeley was pleased with the revised script, he was still concerned about being
able to sell the film. "We still had to get millions out of a major studio," wrote Deeley, "as well
as convince our markets around the world that they should buy it before it was finished. I needed
someone with the calibre of Robert De Niro." De Niro was one of the biggest stars at that
time, coming off Mean Streets, The Godfather Part II, and Taxi Driver. In addition to attracting
buyers, Deeley felt De Niro was "the right age, apparently tough as hell, and immensely
Hiring De Niro turned out to be a casting coup because he knew nearly every actor in New York.
De Niro brought Meryl Streep to the attention of Cimino and Deeley. With Streep came John
Cazale, Streep's lover at the time. De Niro also accompanied Cimino to scout locations for the
steel-mill sequence as well as rehearse with the actors to use the workshops as a bonding
Each of the six principal male characters in the movie carried a photo in their back pocket of
them all together as children so as to enhance the sense of camaraderie amongst them. As well as
this, director Cimino had the props department fashion complete Pennsylvania IDs for each of
them, complete with driver's licenses, medical cards and various other pieces of paraphernalia, so
as to enhance each actor's sense of their character.
Robert De Niro as S/Sgt. Michael "Mike" Vronsky. Producer Deeley pursued De Niro for
The Deer Hunter because he felt that he needed De Niro's star power to sell a film with a
"gruesome-sounding storyline and a barely known director". “I liked the script, and
[Cimino] had done a lot of prep,” said De Niro. “I was impressed.” De Niro prepared by
socializing with steelworkers in local bars and by visiting their homes. Cimino would
introduce De Niro as his agent, Harry Ufland. No one recognized him. De Niro claims this
was his most physically exhausting film. He explained that the scene where Michael visits
Steve in the hospital for the first time was the most emotional scene that he was ever
Christopher Walken as Cpl. Nikanor "Nick" Chevotarevich. His performance garnered his
first Academy Award, for Best Supporting Actor.
John Savage as Cpl. Steven Pushkov. Savage was a last-minute replacement for Roy
Scheider, who dropped out of the production two weeks before the start of filming due to
"creative differences"; Universal managed to keep Scheider to his three-picture contract for
them by forcing him into doing Jaws 2.
Meryl Streep as Linda. Prior to Deer Hunter, Streep was seen briefly in Fred Zinnemann's
Julia and the eight-hour miniseries Holocaust. In the screenplay, Streep's role was
negligible. Cimino explained the set-up to Streep and suggested that she write her own
John Cazale as Stanley ("Stosh"). All scenes involving Cazale, who had terminal cancer, had
to be filmed first. Because of his illness, the studio initially wanted to get rid of him, but
Streep, whom he was dating at the time, and Cimino threatened to walk away if they
did. He was also uninsurable, and according to Streep, De Niro paid for his insurance
because he wanted him in the film. This was his last film, as he died shortly after filming
wrapped. Cazale never saw the finished film.
George Dzundza as John Welsh
Chuck Aspegren as Peter "Axel" Axelrod. Aspegren was not an actor, he was the foreman at
an East Chicago steel works visited early in pre-production by De Niro and Cimino. They
were so impressed with him that they offered him the role. He was the second person to be
cast in the film, after De Niro.
Shirley Stoler as Steven's mother
Rutanya Alda as Angela Ludhjduravic-Pushkov
Amy Wright as Bridesmaid
Joe Grifasi as Bandleader
The Deer Hunter began principal photography on June 20, 1977. This was the first feature film
depicting the Vietnam War to be filmed on location in Thailand. All scenes were shot on location
(no sound stages). “There was discussion about shooting the film on a back lot, but the material
demanded more realism,” says Spikings. The cast and crew viewed large amounts of news
footage from the war to ensure authenticity. The film was shot over a period of six months. The
Clairton scenes comprise footage shot in eight different towns in four states: West Virginia,
Pennsylvania, Washington, and Ohio. The initial budget of the film was $8.5 million.
Before the beginning of principal photography began, Deeley had a meeting with the film's
appointed line producer Robert Relyea. Deeley hired Relyea after meeting him on the set of
Bullitt and was impressed with his experience. However Relyea told Deeley that he would not be
able to be the producer on Deer Hunter. Relyea refused to disclose the reasons why. Deeley
suspected that Relyea had sensed in director Cimino something that would have made production
difficult. As a result, Cimino was acting without day-to-day supervision of a producer.
Because Deeley was busy overseeing in the production of Sam Peckinpah's Convoy, he hired
John Peverall to oversee Cimino's shoot. Peverall's expertise with bugeting and scheduling made
him a natural successor to Relyea and knew enough about the picture to be elevated to producer
status. "John is a straightforward Cornishman who had worked his way up to become a
production supervisor," wrote Deeley, "and we employed him as EMI's watchman on certain
The wedding scenes
St. Theodosius Russian Orthodox Cathedral in Cleveland. Site of the wedding scene.
The wedding scenes were filmed at the historic St. Theodosius Russian Orthodox Cathedral in
the Tremont neighborhood of Cleveland, Ohio. The wedding took five days to film. An actual
priest was cast as the priest at the wedding. The reception scene was filmed at nearby Lemko
Hall. The amateur extras lined up for the crowded wedding-dance sequences drank real liquor
and beer. The scenes were filmed in the summer, but were set in the fall. To accomplish a
look of fall, individual leaves were removed from deciduous trees. Zsigmond also had to
desaturate the colors of the exterior shots, partly in camera and in the laboratory processing.
The production manager asked each of the Russian immigrant extras to bring to the location a
gift-wrapped box to double for wedding presents. The manager figured if the extras did this, not
only would the production save time and money, but the gifts would also look more authentic.
Once the unit had wrapped and the extras disappeared, the crew discovered to their amusement
that the boxes weren't empty but filled with real presents, from china to silverware. "Who got to
keep all these wonderful offerings," wrote Deeley "is a mystery I never quite fathomed."
Cimino had originally claimed that the wedding scene would take up 21 minutes of screentime.
In the end, it took 51 minutes. Deeley believes that Cimino had always planned to make this
prologue last for an hour, and "the plan was to be advanced by stealth rather than straight
At this point in the production, nearly halfway through principal photography, Cimino was
already overbudget, and producer Spikings could tell from the script that shooting the extended
scene could sink the project.
The bar and the steel mill
The bar was specially constructed in an empty storefront in Mingo Junction, Ohio for $25,000; it
later became an actual saloon for local steel mill workers. U.S. Steel allowed filming inside its
Cleveland mill, including placing the actors around the furnace floor, only after securing a $5
million insurance policy. Other filming took place in Pittsburgh. 
Hunting the deer
The first deer to be shot was not actually harmed, despite the "gruesome close-up", but hit with a
tranquilizer dart. The stag which Michael allows to get away later was actually the same
one used on TV commercials for the Connecticut Life Insurance Company.
Vietnam and the Russian roulette scenes
The Vietcong Russian roulette scenes were shot in real circumstances, with real rats and
mosquitoes, as the three principals (De Niro, Walken, and Savage) were tied up in bamboo cages
that had been erected along the River Kwai. The woman tasked with casting the extras out in
Thailand had much difficulty finding a local to play the vicious individual who runs the Russian
roulette game. The first actor hired turned out to be incapable of slapping De Niro in the face.
The female caster thankfully knew a local Thai man with a particular dislike of Americans, and
cast him accordingly. De Niro suggested that Walken be slapped for real from one of the guards
without any forewarning to Walken. The reaction on Walken's face was genuine. Producer
Deeley has said that Cimino shot the brutal Vietcong Russian roulette scenes brilliantly and more
efficiently than any other part of the film.
De Niro and Savage performed their own stunts in the fall into the river, filming the 30 ft drop 15
times in two days. During the helicopter stunt, the runners caught on the ropes and as the
helicopter rose, it threatened to seriously injure De Niro and Savage. The actors gestured and
yelled furiously to the crew in the helicopter to warn them. Footage of this is included in the
According to Cimino, De Niro requested a live cartridge in the revolver for the scene in which he
subjects John Cazale's character to an impromptu game of Russian roulette, to heighten the
intensity of the situation. Cazale agreed without protest, but obsessively rechecked the gun
before each take to make sure that the live round wasn't next in the chamber.
While appearing later in the film, the first scenes shot upon arrival in Thailand are the hospital
sequences between Walken and the military doctor. Deeley believes that this scene was "the spur
that would earn him an Academy Award."[a 3]
In the final scene in the gambling den between Mike and Nick, Cimino had Walken and De Niro
improvise in one take. His direction to his actors: "You put the gun to your head, Chris, you
shoot, you fall over and Bobby cradles your head."
St. Theodosius Russian Orthodox Cathedral, Cleveland, Ohio. The name plaque is clearly
visible in one scene.
Lemko Hall, Cleveland, Ohio. The wedding banquet. The name is clearly visible in one
US Steel Central Furnaces in Cleveland, Ohio. Opening sequence steel mill scenes.
Patpong, Bangkok, Thailand, the area used to represent Saigon's red light district.
Sai Yok, Kanchanaburi Province, Thailand
North Cascades National Park, Washington, mountain scenes.
Steubenville, Ohio, for some mill and neighborhood shots.
Struthers, Ohio, for external house and long-range road shots. Also including, the town’s
bowling alley is the Bowladrome Lanes, located at 56 State Street, Struthers, Ohio.
Weirton, West Virginia, for mill and trailer shots.
River Kwai, Thailand, Prison camp and initial Russian roulette scene.
By this point, The Deer Hunter had cost $13 million. The film still had to go through an
arduous post-production. Film editor Peter Zinner was given 600,000 feet of printed film to edit,
a monumental task at the time. Producers Spikings and Deeley were pleased with the first cut,
which ran for three-and-a-half hours. "We were thrilled by what we saw," wrote Deeley, "and
knew that within the three and a half hours we watched there was a riveting film."
Executives from Universal, including Lew Wasserman and Sid Sheinberg, were not very
enthusiastic. “I think they were shocked," recalled Spikings. "What really upset them was
‘God Bless America.’ Sheinberg thought it was anti-American. He was vehement. He said
something like ‘You’re poking a stick in the eye of America.’ They really didn’t like the movie.
And they certainly didn’t like it at three hours two minutes.” Thom Mount, president of
Universal at the time, said, "“This was just a fucking continuing nightmare from the day Michael
finished the picture to the day we released it. That was simply because he was wedded to
everything he shot. The movie was endless. It was The Deer Hunter and the Hunter and the
Hunter. The wedding sequence was a cinematic event all unto its own.”
Deeley wasn't surprised by the Universal response: "The Deer Hunter was a United Artists sort
of picture, whereas Convoy was more in the style of Universal. I'd muddled and sold the wrong
picture to each studio." Deeley did agree with Universal that the film needed to be shorter, not
just because of pacing but also to ensure commercial success. "A picture under two and a half
hours can scrape three shows a day," wrote Deeley, "but at three hours you've lost one third of
your screenings and one third of your income for the cinemas, distibutors and profit
Mount says he turned to Verna Fields, then Universal’s head of postproduction. “I sicced Verna
on Cimino,” Mount says. “Verna was no slouch. She started to turn the heat up on Michael, and
he started screeching and yelling.” Zinner eventually cut the film down to 18,000 feet.
Zinner was later fired by Cimino when he discovered that Zinner was editing down the wedding
scenes. Zinner eventually won Best Editing Oscar for The Deer Hunter. Regarding the
clashes between him and Cimino, Zinner replied "Michael Cimino and I had our differences at
the end, but he kissed me when we both got Academy Awards." Cimino would later comment
in The New York Observer, "[Zinner] was a moron... I cut Deer Hunter myself."
Both the long and short versions were previewed to midwestern audiences, although there are
different accounts among Cimino, Deeley and Spikings as to how the previews panned out.
Director Cimino claims he bribed the projectionist to interrupt the shorter version, in order to
obtain better reviews of the longer one. According to producer Spikings, Wasserman let EMI’s
C.E.O. Delfont decide between the two and chose the Cimino's longer cut. Deeley claims that
the two-and-a-half hour version tested had a better response.
The Deer Hunter
Soundtrack album by Stanley Myers
Genre Film score
The soundtrack to The Deer Hunter was released on audio CD on October 25, 1990.
Stanley Myers's "Cavatina" (also known as "He Was Beautiful"), performed by classical
guitarist John Williams, is commonly known as "The Theme from The Deer Hunter".
According to producer Deeley, he discovered that the song was originally written for a film
called The Walking Stick (1970) and, as a result, had to pay the original purchaser an
"Can't Take My Eyes Off You", a 1967 hit song, sung by Frankie Valli.[a 4] It is played in bar
when all of the friends sing along and at the wedding reception. According to Cimino, the
actors sang along to the song played in the bar instead of singing to a beat track, a standard
filmmaking practice. Cimino felt that would make the sing-along seem more real.
During the wedding ceremonies and party, the Eastern Orthodox Church songs such as
"Slava" and Russian folk songs such as "Korobushka" and "Katyusha" are played.
Russian Orthodox funeral music is also employed during Nick's funeral scene, mainly
"Vechnaya Pamyat", which means "eternal memory".
Deer Hunter debuted at one theater each in New York and Los Angeles for a week on December
8, 1978. The release strategy was to qualify the film for Oscar consideration and close
after a week to build interest. After the Oscar nominations, Universal widened the distribution
to include major cities, building up to a full-scale release on February 23, 1979, just following
the Oscars. This film was important for helping massage release patterns for so-called
prestige pictures that screen only at the end of the year to qualify for Academy Award
recognition. The film eventually grossed $48,979,328 at the US box office.
CBS paid $3.5 million for three runs of the film. The network later cancelled the acquisition on
the contractually permitted grounds of the film containing too much violence for US network
Controversy over Russian roulette
Robert De Niro pulls the trigger to his gun in one of the more tense scenes of Russian roulette in
One of the most talked-about sequences in the film, the Vietcong's use of Russian roulette with
POWs, was criticized as being contrived and unrealistic since there were no documented cases of
Russian roulette in the Vietnam War. Associated Press reporter Peter Arnett, who had won
a Pulitzer Prize for his coverage of the war, wrote in the Los Angeles Times, “In its 20 years of
war, there was not a single recorded case of Russian roulette.… The central metaphor of the
movie is simply a bloody lie.” Director Cimino was also criticized for one-sidedly portraying
all the North Vietnamese as despicable, sadistic racists and killers. Cimino countered that his
film was not political, polemical, literally accurate, or posturing for any particular point of
view. He further defended his position by saying that he had news clippings from Singapore
that confirm Russian roulette was used during the war (without specifying which article).
During the 29th Berlin International Film Festival in 1979, the Soviet delegation expressed its
indignation with the film which, in their opinion, insulted the Vietnamese people in numerous
scenes. The socialist states felt obliged to voice their solidarity with the “heroic people of
Vietnam”. They protested against the screening of the film and insisted that it violated the
statutes of the festival, since it in no way contributed to the “improvement of mutual
understanding between the peoples of the world”. The ensuing domino effect led to the walk-
outs of the Cubans, East Germans, Bulgarians, Poles and Czechoslovakians, and two members of
the jury resigned in sympathy.
In the 2010 video game, Call of Duty: Black Ops the level Payback pays homage to the Russian
roulette scene in the opening.
In his review, Roger Ebert defended the artistic license of Russian roulette, arguing "it is the
organizing symbol of the film: Anything you can believe about the game, about its deliberately
random violence, about how it touches the sanity of men forced to play it, will apply to the war
as a whole. It is a brilliant symbol because, in the context of this story, it makes any ideological
statement about the war superfluous."
Film critic and biographer David Thomson also agrees that the film works despite the
controversy: "There were complaints that the North Vietnamese had not employed Russian
roulette. It was said that the scenes in Saigon were fanciful or imagined. And it was suggested
that De Niro, Christopher Walken, and John Savage were too old to have enlisted for Vietnam
(Savage, the youngest of the three, was 28). Three decades later, 'imagination' seems to have
stilled those worries... and The Deer Hunter is one of the great American films."
In her review, Pauline Kael wrote, “The Vietcong are treated in the standard inscrutable-evil
Oriental style of the Japanese in the Second World War movies.… The impression a viewer gets
is that if we did some bad things there we did them ruthlessly but impersonally; the Vietcong
were cruel and sadistic.”
In his Vanity Fair article "The Vietnam Oscars", Peter Biskind wrote that the political agenda of
The Deer Hunter was something of a mystery: "It may have been more a by-product of
Hollywood myopia, the demands of the war-film genre, garden-variety American parochialism,
and simple ignorance than it was the pre-meditated right-wing road map it seemed to many."
Cast and crew response
According to Christopher Walken, the historical context wasn't paramount: “In the making of it,
I don’t remember anyone ever mentioning Vietnam!” De Niro added to this sentiment: “Whether
[the film’s vision of the war] actually happened or not, it’s something you could imagine very
easily happening. Maybe it did. I don’t know. All’s fair in love and war.” Producer Spikings,
while proud of the film, regrets the way the Vietnamese were portrayed. "I don’t think any of us
meant it to be exploitive,” Spikings said. “But I think we were … ignorant. I can’t think of a
better word for it. I didn’t realize how badly we’d behaved to the Vietnamese people..."
Producer Deeley, on the other hand, was quick to defend Cimino's comments on the nature and
motives of the film: "The Deer Hunter wasn't really 'about' Vietnam. It was something very
different. It wasn't about drugs or the collapse of the morale of the soldiers. It was about how
individuals respond to pressure: different men reacting quite differently. The film was about
three steel workers in extraordinary circumstances. Apocalypse Now is surreal. The Deer Hunter
is a parable... Men who fight and lose an unworthy war face some obvious and unpalatable
choices. They can blame their leaders.. or they can blame themselves. Self-blame has been a
great burden for many war veterans. So how does a soldier come to terms with his defeat and yet
still retain his self-respect? One way is to present the conquering enemy as so inhuman, and the
battle between the good guys (us) and the bad guys (them) so uneven, as to render defeat
irrelevant. Inhumanity was the theme of The Deer Hunter's portrayal of the North Vietnamese
prison guards forcing American POWs to play Russian roulette. The audience's sympathy with
prisoners who (quite understandably) cracked thus completes the chain. Accordingly, some
veterans who suffered in that war found the Russian roulette a valid allegory."
Director Cimino's autobiographical intent
Cimino frequently referred to The Deer Hunter as a "personal" and "autobiographical" film,
although later investigation by journalists like Tom Buckley of Harper's revealed inaccuracies in
Cimino's accounts and reported background.
Coda of "God Bless America"
The final scene in which all the main characters gather and sing "God Bless America" became a
subject of heated debate among critics when the film was released.
The film's initial reviews were largely enthusiastic. It was hailed by many critics as the best
American epic since Francis Ford Coppola's The Godfather. The film was praised for its
depiction of working-class settings and environment; Cimino's direction of the performances by
De Niro, Walken, Streep, Savage, Dzundza and Cazale; the symphonic shifts of tone and pacing
in moving from America to Vietnam; the tension during the Russian roulette scenes; and the
themes of American disillusionment.
Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times gave the film four stars and called it "one of the most
emotionally shattering films ever made." Gene Siskel from the Chicago Tribune praised the
film, saying, "This is a big film, dealing with big issues, made on a grand scale. Much of it,
including some casting decisions, suggest inspiration by The Godfather." Leonard Maltin also
gave the film four stars, calling it a "sensitive, painful, evocative work". Vincent Canby of the
New York Times called The Deer Hunter "a big, awkward, crazily ambitious motion picture that
comes as close to being a popular epic as any movie about this country since The Godfather. Its
vision is that of an original, major new filmmaker." David Denby of New York called it "an
epic" with "qualities that we almost never see any more — range and power and breadth of
experience." Jack Kroll of Time asserted it put director Cimino "right at the center of film
culture." Stephen Farber pronounced the film in New West magazine as "the greatest anti-war
movie since La Grande Illusion."
However, The Deer Hunter was not without critical backlash, especially in light of the film's
controversial use of Russian roulette at its center. Pauline Kael of The New Yorker wrote a
positive review with some reservations: "[It is] a small minded film with greatness in it... with an
enraptured view of common life... [but] enraging, because, despite its ambitiousness and scale, it
has no more moral intelligence than the Eastwood action pictures." Andrew Sarris wrote that
the film was “massively vague, tediously elliptical, and mysteriously hysterical.… It is perhaps
significant that the actors remain more interesting than the characters they play.” John Simon
of New York wrote: "For all its pretensions to something newer and better, this film is only an
extension of the old Hollywood war-movie lie. The enemy is still bestial and stupid, and no
match for our purity and heroism; only we no longer wipe up the floor with him -- rather, we
litter it with his guts."
The film holds a metascore of 73 on Metacritic, based on 7 reviews, and 91% fresh rating on
Rotten Tomatoes, based on 43 reviews. The RT consensus is:
Its greatness is blunted by its length and one-sided point of view, but the film's weaknesses are
overpowered by Michael Cimino's sympathetic direction and a series of heartbreaking
performances from Robert De Niro, Meryl Streep, and Christopher Walken.
3rd - Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times. Ebert also placed Deer Hunter on his list of the
best films of the 1970s.
3rd - Gene Siskel, Chicago Tribune
Academy Award winning film director Milos Forman and Academy Award nominated actor
Mickey Rourke consider The Deer Hunter to be one of the greatest films of all time.
Revisionism following Heaven's Gate
Cimino's next film, Heaven's Gate, debuted to lacerating reviews and took in only $3 million in
ticket sales, effectively putting United Artists out of business. The failure of Heaven's Gate led
several critics to revise their positions on The Deer Hunter. Canby said in his famous review of
Heaven's Gate, "[The film] fails so completely that you might suspect Mr. Cimino sold his soul
to the Devil to obtain the success of The Deer Hunter, and the Devil has just come around to
collect." Andrew Sarris wrote in his review of Heaven's Gate, "I'm a little surprised that many
of the same critics who lionized Cimino for The Deer Hunter have now thrown him to the
wolves with equal enthusiasm." Sarris added, "I was never taken in... Hence, the stupidity and
incoherence in Heaven's Gate came as no surprise since very much the same stupidity and
incoherence had been amply evident in The Deer Hunter." In his book Final Cut: Dreams and
Disaster in the Making of Heaven's Gate, Steven Bach wrote, "critics seemed to feel obliged to
go on the record about The Deer Hunter, to demonstrate that their critical credentials were un-
besmirched by having been, as Sarris put it, 'taken in.'"
More recently, BBC film critic Mark Kermode challenged the film's status among generally
praised film classics: "There is an unwritten rule in film criticism that certain films are beyond
rebuke. Citizen Kane, Some Like It Hot, 2001, The Godfather Part II... all these are considered to
be classics of such universally accepted stature... At the risk of being thrown out of the
'respectable film critics' circle, may I take this opportunity to declare officially that in my opinion
The Deer Hunter is one of the worst films ever made, a rambling self indulgent, self
aggrandising barf-fest steeped in manipulatively racist emotion, and notable primarily for its
farcically melodramatic tone which is pitched somewhere between shrieking hysteria and
However, many critics maintain that The Deer Hunter is still a great film whose power hasn't
diminished, including David Thomson and A.O. Scott.
Academy Awards record
1. Best Supporting Actor, Christopher Walken
2. Best Director, Michael Cimino
3. Best Editing, Peter Zinner
4. Best Picture, Barry Spikings, Michael Deeley, Michael
Cimino, John Peverall
5. Best Sound, Richard Portman, William L. McCaughey, Aaron
Rochin, C. Darin Knight
Golden Globe Awards record
1. Best Director, Michael Cimino
BAFTA Awards record
1. Best Cinematography, Vilmos Zsigmond
2. Best Editing, Peter Zinner
Lead up to Awards Season
Allan Carr, film producer and "old-fashioned mogul", used his networking abilities to promote
The Deer Hunter. "Exactly how Allan Carr came into The Deer Hunter's orbit I can no longer
remember," recalled producer Deeley, "but the picture became a crusade to him. He nagged,
charmed, threw parties, he created word-of-mouth – everything that could be done in Hollywood
to promote a project. Because he had no apparent motive for this promotion, it had an added
power and legitimacy and it finally did start to penetrate the minds of the Universal's sales
people that they actually had in their hands something a bit more significant than the usual."
Deeley added that Carr's promotion of the film was influential in positioning The Deer Hunter
for Oscar nominations.
On the Sneak Previews special "Oscar Preview for 1978", Roger Ebert correctly predicted that
The Deer Hunter would win for Best Picture while Gene Siskel predicted that Coming Home
would win. However, Ebert incorrectly guessed that Robert De Niro would win for Best Actor
for Deer Hunter and Jill Clayburgh would win for Best Actress for An Unmarried Woman while
Siskel called the wins for Jon Voight as Best Actor and Jane Fonda as Best Actress, both for
Coming Home. Both Ebert and Siskel called the win for Christopher Walken receiving the Oscar
for Best Supporting Actor.
According to producer Deeley, orchestrated lobbying against The Deer Hunter was led by
Warren Beatty, whose own picture Heaven Can Wait had multiple nominations. Beatty also
used ex-girlfriends in his campaign: Julie Christie, serving on the jury at the Berlin Film Festival
where Deer Hunter was screened, had joined the walkout of the film by the Russian jury
members. Jane Fonda also criticized The Deer Hunter in public. Deeley suggested that her
criticisms partly stemmed from the competition between her film Coming Home vying with The
Deer Hunter for Best Picture. According to Deeley, he planted a friend of his in the Oscar press
area behind the stage to ask Fonda if she had seen The Deer Hunter. Fonda replied she had not
seen the film, and to this day she still has not.
As the Oscars drew near, the backlash against The Deer Hunter gathered strength. When the
limos pulled up to the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion on April 9, 1979, they were met by
demonstrators, mostly from the Los Angeles chapter of Vietnam Veterans Against the War. The
demonstrators waved placards covered with slogans that read "No Oscars for racism" and "The
Deer Hunter a bloody lie" and thrust pamphlets berating Deer Hunter into long lines of
limousine windows. Washburn, nominated for Best Original Screenplay, claims his
limousine was pelted with stones. According to Variety, “Police and The Deer Hunter protesters
clashed in a brief but bloody battle that resulted in 13 arrests.”
De Niro was so anxious that he did not attend the Oscars ceremony. He asked the Academy to sit
out the show backstage, but when the Academy refused, De Niro stayed home in New York.
Producer Deeley made a deal with fellow producer David Puttnam, whose film Midnight Express
was nominated, that each would take $500 to the ceremony so if one of them won, the winner
would give the loser the $500 to "drown his sorrows in style."
51st Academy Awards
The Deer Hunter won five Oscars at the 51st Academy Awards in 1979:
Best Picture (John Wayne's final public appearance was to present the award).
Best Director (Michael Cimino)
Best Actor in a Supporting Role (Christopher Walken)
Best Film Editing
Best Sound (Richard Portman, William McCaughey, Aaron Rochin, Darin Knight).
In addition, the film was nominated in four other categories:
Best Actor in a Leading Role (Robert De Niro)
Best Actress in a Supporting Role (Meryl Streep)
Best Cinematography (Vilmos Zsigmond)
Best Writing, Screenplay Written Directly for the Screen (Michael Cimino, Deric Washburn,
Louis Garfinkle and Quinn Redeker).
Cimino won the film's only Golden Globe for Best Director. Other nominations the film included
Best Motion Picture - Drama, De Niro for Best Motion Picture Actor - Drama, Walken for Best
Motion Picture Actor in a Supporting Role, Streep for Best Motion Picture Actress in a
Supporting Role, and Washburn for Best Screenplay - Motion Picture.
The Deer Hunter was one of the first, and most controversial, major theatrical films to be critical
of the American involvement in Vietnam following 1975 when the war officially ended. While
the film opened the same year as Hal Ashby's Coming Home, Sidney Furie's The Boys in
Company C, and Ted Post's Go Tell the Spartans, it was the first film about Vietnam to reach a
wide audience and critical acclaim, culminating in the winning of the Oscar for Best Picture.
Other films released in the late 1970s and 1980s that illustrated the 'hellish', futile conditions of
bloody Vietnam War combat included:
Francis Ford Coppola's Apocalypse Now (1979)
Oliver Stone's Platoon (1986)
Stanley Kubrick's Full Metal Jacket (1987)
John Irvin's Hamburger Hill (1987)
Oliver Stone's Born on the Fourth of July (1989)
Brian De Palma's Casualties of War (1989)
Robert Zemeckis's Forrest Gump (1994)
David Thomson wrote in an article titled "The Deer Hunter: Story of a scene" that the film
changed the way war-time battles had been portrayed on film: "The terror and the blast of
firepower changed the war film, even if it only used a revolver. More or less before the late
1970s, the movies had lived by a Second World War code in which battle scenes might be fierce
but always rigorously controlled. The Deer Hunter unleashed a new, raw dynamic in combat and
action, paving the way for Platoon, Saving Private Ryan and Clint Eastwood's Iwo Jima
The deaths of approximately twenty-five people who died playing Russian roulette were reported
as having been influenced by scenes in the movie.
Honors and recognitions
In 1996, The Deer Hunter was selected for preservation in the United States National Film
Registry by the Library of Congress as being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically
The film ranks 467th in the Empire magazine's 2008 list of the 500 greatest movies of all
Cimino's bold, powerful 'Nam epic goes from blue-collar macho rituals to a fiery, South East
Asian hell and back to a ragged singalong of America The Beautiful. De Niro holds it together,
but Christopher Walken, Meryl Streep and John Savage are unforgettable.
As of May 27, 2010, The Deer Hunter is #130 on IMDb's List of Top 250 movies as voted by its
Jan Scruggs, a Vietnam veteran who became a counselor with the U.S. Department of Labor,
thought of the idea of building a National Memorial for Vietnam Veterans after seeing a
screening of the film in March 1979, and he established and operated the memorial fund which
paid for it. Director Cimino was invited to the memorial's opening.
American Film Institute recognition
AFI's 100 Years... 100 Movies #79
AFI's 100 Years... 100 Thrills #30
AFI's 100 Years... 100 Movies (10th Anniversary Edition) #53
Home media release
The Deer Hunter has twice been released on DVD in America. The first 1998 issue was by
Universal, with no extra features and a non-anamorphic transfer, and has since been
discontinued. A second version, part of the "Legacy Series", was released as a two-disc set on
September 6, 2005, with an anamorphic transfer of the film. The set features a cinematographer's
commentary by Vilmos Zsigmond, deleted and extended scenes, and production notes. The
Region 2 version of The Deer Hunter, released in the UK and Japan, features a commentary
track from director Michael Cimino.
The film was released on HD DVD on December 26, 2006. StudioCanal released the film on
the Blu-ray format in countries other than the United States on March 11, 2009.
The Deer Hunter (novel)
The Last Hunter – An Italian film originally made as an unofficial sequel
1. ^ The 2006 DVD release of The Deer Hunter clocks in at 3 hours, 3 minutes and 22 seconds.
2. ^ Roger Ebert: "Michael Cimino's The Deer Hunter is a three-hour movie in three major
movements." Tim Dirks: "The overlong film is roughly divided into equal thirds or acts,
spanning the time period 1968-1975".
3. ^ A clip from the scene between Walken and the military doctor was shown on an Sneak
Previews special "Oscar Preview for 1978", in which critics Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert
correctly predicted that Walken would win the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor.
4. ^ While featured prominently in the film, "Can't Take My Eyes Off Of You" does not appear on
The Deer Hunter's soundtrack.